Kephalē in the New Testament: A Review

Old Statue

Over at the Sigma Frame blog, anonymous user info suggested that the Greek word kephalē  means authority. He was helpful enough to provide a link to Right Reason, Kephalē in the New Testament, by Dr. Glenn Andrew Peoples. This post is a quick review of that word survey.

Head

The majority of uses of kephalē refer to the literal head. As these uses are not figurative, they do not concern us.

There are a couple of examples where the literal meaning and the meaning of authority are each possible. Specifically, this is the case where Christ is said to be the head of the body of Christ. [..] Christ’s role as “head,” then, is probably intended to mean that he is the leader or authority over the church, rather than that he is a part of the local church, which is the body of Christ.

While I agree that Jesus has all authority over all believers (see Matthew 28:18), I do not agree that Paul is primarily concerned with Jesus’ authority when he he uses the head-body metaphor. Rather, he is concerned with Jesus’ status. Prior to the 4th century, kephalē means preeminent, exalted, elevated, or first, not leader[1]. It may or may not involve someone with authority.

In English, we use the term “face” similarly. For example, consider the statement “Aaron Judge is the face of baseball.” Aaron has no authority over baseball itself, but he is in a place of prominence, arguably its preeminent hitter in the toughest environment.

So let’s consider Dr. Peoples’ survey.

Cornerstone

The phrase translated “cornerstone” here in the ESV is literally head (kephalē) of the corner. The presence of kephalē here is why some translations read “chief cornerstone.” The idea of “source” is nowhere in sight and would make no sense here. However, in context the contrast between being unimportant (rejected) and taking first position is the theme, indicating that here kephalē refers to something being first in importance.

This is the correct analysis. The cornerstone (literally “head of the corner”) was of first importance, because it set the angles for the house. If the cornerstone were not perfectly square (i.e. 90 degree angles), the foundation would not be, for later stones would take their position relative to the angle set by the cornerstone. The idea of authority is nowhere in mind.

Peoples reviews a number of instances of the use of “cornerstone”, all with the same basic meaning. There is no need to mention them specifically.

Ephesians 1:16-22

Here Christ is said to be kephalē over all things to the church. In context the clear theme is that Christ has supreme authority: He is seated in the heavenly places, he is above all other rule and authority, his name is above every other name. His being the head over all things to the church is directly connected to all things being under Christ’s feet. This is the same short book in which the husband is said to be the head of the wife [in Ephesians 5].

The view in verse 18…

“I ask that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know the hope of His calling, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints”

…is “the riches of His glorious inheritance“. Let’s keep this in mind and continue.

Verses 20-21 say:

“He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”

This is a reference to Christ’s exalted status, which he has over every other ruler or leader.

“And God put everything under His feet and made Him head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”

This reference includes both the “head-feet” and “over-under” word pairs. The head and the feet are extremes. Just as Jesus was exalted, elevated, preeminent, the beginning and the origin, and firstborn of the dead, so too is Jesus exalted, elevated, preeminent, and the beginning and the origin of the church. The lowest of the low are under Jesus feet.

But jump back to the first verse cited above. Glory—like honor—refers to status. We are intended to be exalted and elevated to a place of glorious inheritance, just as Christ has already been exalted. There is no better inheritance than that we receive by adoption into Christ’s family.

Colossians 2:9-10

Here Christ is said to be the kephalē of all rule and authority. It is linguistically possible for “source” to be the intended meaning here, so that Christ is being said to be the origin of all rule and authority. This may reflect the idea expressed in Romans 13, also penned by St Paul, that there is no authority except that which God has established. However there are two considerations that weigh against this possibility in Colossians 2, and in favour of “head” in the sense of authority. Firstly, in Colossians 2 the stress is on the high status of Christ, which is why the writer is at pains to say that in Christ all the fullness of deity dwells. He is truly divine. Secondly, as seen in previous examples, it is not true that Jesus is the source of all rule and authority. God, who put all things under Christ and gave Christ a name above all others, is that source. Hence the idea in Colossians 2:9-10 is that Christ is supreme over all earthly rule and authority. This is less like Romans 13 and more like Philippians 2:9.

I understand why some would argue that ‘head’ means source. It is a common English usage. In the Ancient North East, much status was given to being first. Adam was greater than Eve, the firstborn son had the greater inheritance, and the old were greater than the young. What came first had greater status, was preeminent. Source is the thing that comes before another thing, but has a much more causal relationship. I agree with Dr. Peoples that this meaning does not fit, though it is close enough not to be logically impossible.

With regards to Romans 13, Paul refers to submission in the explicit context of authority (exousia). In this context, he is obviously talking about authority. When Paul gives instructions on a wife submitting to her husband in Ephesians 5, he does not use exousia, but kephalē.

Dr. Peoples notes that Colossians 2 stresses “the high status of Christ.” This is exactly correct. He also notes that it is not true that Jesus is the source of all rule and authority. This too is precisely correct. God is the source of authority, not Christ. Christ is “supreme over all earthly rule and authority”: he is preeminent. Peoples says that this is more like Philippians 2:9, which states:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name

Again we see the theme of exaltation. Jesus is elevated in status, to the highest possible status above else.

Regarding the use of ‘fullness’, in three places Ephesians 1:22-23, Colossians 1:18-19, and Colossians 2:9-10, Paul pairs the term “fullness [and perfection]” (plērōma) with the term ‘head’. Some scholars believe that the these three contexts were an explicit rebuttal of Hellenistic Pre-Gnostic heresy, as the Gnostics embraced the head-body metaphor in their teachings. In any case, this has absolutely nothing to do with authority. See more on the Gnostic godhead’s circle of divine attributes here.

The Patriarchal Passages

The only other two uses of ‘head’ are found in the patriarchal passages of 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5. Dr. Peoples does not cover these, and so I will leave them out as well. I assume that the use will be identical there—preeminence, not authority—but that is outside the scope of this review.

Summary

In summary, when ‘head’ is used figuratively in the Bible, it is used to indicate exalted status or first importance, not authority. When authority is under view, different words are used. Despite a few quibbles, I more-or-less agree that Dr. Peoples’ word survey is accurate.

 

Footnotes

[1] Al Wolters, “Head as Metaphor,” Koers 76.1 (2011): 137-153, 142 and 143.

3 Comments

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